Fes is the first Stage Caravane Route

Leo notes

Caravan notes

Cristel notes

Jewish Life in Fes

Until recently Fes was home to the largest and oldest Jewish community in Morocco. The creation of Israel, the 6 day war and other changes in the middle eastern political landscape greatly altered dynamics between Jews and Arabs in Morocco, making it hard to imagine a time when both communities lived if not 'in harmony', at least in 'peace'. Jews played a strong economic role in all areas of Morocco, and it is not surprising to find them at the heart of the Caravan trade, and at the heart of Fes.

The Mellah (name given to the Fes Jewish quarter and subsequently to every Jewish quarter in Morocco) was built in the 14th century, as a part of the 'new town' (Fes el Djedid) hosting the administrative apparatus of the Merinid rule. Its name derives from the Arabic Al Mellah (salty), as the land it was built on was of a particularly saline composition. "Mellahs" , or salty towns, then sprang-up in other parts of the country- with no relation to any saline grounds! (ah, the ironies of etymology).

Wandering through the Mellah, one immediately notices the very different architectural composition of the homes, many of which were built in the 16th century, when numerous Jewish families fled Andalusia and Christian persecution.

Some noticeable features are balconies, and elevated external corridors to enable passage from one house
to another. (see picture)

 Bonnie (whose Fulbright research focuses on the restoration of buildings in the Fes medina) led me through the Mellah, pointing to these architectural oddities (by Moroccan standards). As we stood gazing at the Mellah heights and wishing we had chosen a better day than Saturday to visit these quarters (only gentiles would chose the Sabbath to explore Jewish lands!), a 'fairy godmother' appeared from the depths of a sweat shop, bidding us to follow him. He was a peculiar fairy godmother: short, hairy and slightly balding- yet magical nonetheless. We followed him into the depths of the Mellah, and straight through to one of Fes's 40 or so Synagogues.

Our self appointed guide claimed to be one of the 500 or so remaining Jews in Fes. These surviving families put much pride into safeguarding their heritage, a mission they have been helped in by donors from Europe and America. The above plaque commemorating the restoration effort of this now spotless synagogue testifies to this joint effort.

After this afternoon in the Mellah, and our earlier experiences with Didier, the leader of Fes' Jewish community, Bonnie and I started to get a sense for these people's pride and heritage- a nostalgia of times past, and a constant effort to remind visitors that Jews were NEVER mistreated in Morocco (an assertion that doesn't really hold up to history, yet illustrates the general mood of the remaining few). As proof of the peaceful cohabitation between their people and the Moroccan Arabs, Jews always cite the Royal Financial counselor, who has been Jewish as far back as anyone can recall.

One wonders at this Diaspora, at the choices people made to stay or go.
One thing is for certain, in Leo's day and age, Jews were singled out as different, and not often not to their advantage:

"This is a rotten place, 25 miles West of Sijilmassa, on the way to the Draa. It hosts a permanent faction of Arab soldiers who demand tribute for every Camel that passes by. They ask the same of every Jew that comes their way. I passed by here one day, traveling with 14 Jews. The guards asked us to count the number of travelers, and we counted two less people. The guards did not let us go by and asked that two stay behind. We had to assure them that two of us were Muslim and not Jewish. To make sure, they had us recite the Muslim prayer, then apologized and let us go." (Leo, 431)